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26 March 2012

Dying! Dying in the night!

Dying! Dying in the night!

Won't somebody bring the light

So I can see which way to go

Into the everlasting snow?

And "Jesus"! Where is Jesus gone?

They said that Jesus – always came – 

Perhaps he doesn't know the House – 

This way, Jesus, Let him pass!

Somebody run to the great gate

And see if Dollie's coming! Wait!

I hear her feet upon the stair!

Death won't hurt – now Dollie's here!
                                                            F222 (1861)   158

This is a poem of interest mainly to those interested in Dickinson’s personal life. However, since much of Dickinson’s poetry is written as specific responses to the pains and pleasures of her life, biographical  material is helpful. What’s of biographical interest in this poem are her irreverence towards “’Jesus’” – which adds complexity to what we know of her spirituality since in numerous other poems she is tender and humble towards him – and her dependence on Dollie / Sue Austin. There is a cycle of “Sue” poems in which Dickinson professes her love and need for Sue or else her sense of neglect and suspicion. As recently as poem F218, You love me – you are sure, she was hoping Sue would be honest about whether or not she returned Dickinson’s love.
Antarctic whiteout – impossible
to know which way to go
            Here, the poet proposes that dying would be like passing into “everlasting snow.” Snow means various things in Dickinson poems: purity, virtue, poetry (the white pages), and heavenly / angelic. It is the “heavenly” aspect that the poet faces as she dies. But rather than facing a welcoming parade of snowy angel wings or fluffy clouds surrounding Paradise, the dying person faces an ominous whiteout as she seemingly loses consciousness. She calls for light so that she won't be lost, as if there is such confusion after death that a guide is needed.
            The assumed guide would have been Jesus, but the narrator dismisses the idea with scorn. She puts "'Jesus'" in quotation marks as if he were an amusing fiction. Then she italicizes the name as if the line is sarcastic. He “always” comes to ease the transition between life and death, but now he is is nowhere to be seen. The sarcasm continues: maybe he “doesn’t know the House” – as if he would need a map. Then, mockingly, she calls out as if she were a policeman at the scene of a crime calling out to the crowd to let the doctor pass.
            Jesus doesn’t come, but that is all for the good because the narrator can hear Dollie coming up the stairs to the bedroom, and Dollie will somehow accomplish what the narrator doubted Jesus could do: ease the passing from the living to the dead. “Death won’t hurt” as long as Dollie is at her side. She will be the light and the guide. This is a pretty huge burden to place on your friend! Small wonder that Sue might be accused of neglect towards Emily Dickinson.
The poem begins with an echo of Blake’s famous poem, “The Tiger," which begins,
TIGER, tiger, burning bright             
In the forests of the night,             
What immortal hand or eye             
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

and then after painting a grim and deadly portrait of the fierce tiger, Blake wonders:
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Dickinson almost surely was familiar with this poem. But this one of hers lacks the seriousness of Blakes and makes a failed stab at a light tone. 


  1. Wasn't it you who informed us that Emily could lock herself away in her room, to 'work'? I don't think this poem was for public perusal.

    1. In Fr445, They shut me up in Prose, I mentioned her comment to a young relative about turning the key on the bedroom door and finding freedom.

  2. I want a classify how she get afreedom from the arbitrary god

  3. Why did ED write this poem? Why almost 1800 poems? She included a few as gifts in letters, “flowers” she called them, but that seems unlikely why she wrote. She claimed they weren’t for public perusal but carefully constructed neat bound bundles, what Mabel Todd called “fascicles”, until the late 1860s. Her poems weren’t journal entries, though they record ideas. When she died she hoarder-like left hundreds locked in a desk, no one knowing they existed, much less what to do with them. Is it any surprise their traits vary, some penurious, some diamond tiaras? And this poem, ‘Dying, Dying in the night’, sarcastic, pitiful, a cry for the mother she claimed she never had.

    The question’s answer? Her poem is her poem, whatever it means for us. That is all we know. Thank you ED.